Reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide through the History and Legacy of Morichjhapi

Rajorshi Das, University of Delhi

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The conflict between human rights and animal conservation is a perpetual concern in state politics. My paper on Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide explores how the Morichjhapi massacre, a result of the Foucauldian governmentality of contemporary Left government in West Bengal was justified on the basis ofecological concerns. It paved the way for further marginalisation of East Bengali refugees in other parts of India. Thus while the Partition of India as an event might have consummated in 1947, its after-effects continue to shape the politics of South Asia, reducing both citizens and refugees to diasporas and even stateless objects.

Keywords: Morichjhapi, Diaspora, Refugee, Partition, Ecology, Project Tiger, East Bengal, Stateless, Sunderbans, Home, Namasudras

The plight of the displaced is a recurrent theme in Amitav Ghosh’s novels. The Hungry Tide(2004) is marked by the author’s ecological consciousness as he merges history, myth and fiction to delve into the liminal space of the Sundarbans where human destinies are shaped and structuredby the ebb and flow of water. The novel juxtaposes two temporal narratives- that of the Morichjhapi massacre (through Nirmal’s diary) and Piya’s research on the elusive Irrawaddydolphins (Orcaella brevirostris)- to highlight the central conflict between animal conservation and human rights.The story begins with the arrival of two ‘outsiders’- Kanai, a Bengalitranslator, now based in New Delhi and Piya, an Indo-Americancetologist who despite her Bengali roots, is alienated from the language. As Kanai is coerced by his aunt Nilima to come and explore his late uncle’s diary, Ghosh takes us back and forth in time and space to recreate the horror of Morichjhapi- a tragedy conveniently marginalised in Indian historiography.

Following Partition, many HinduEast Bengalis started migrating to India and especially to West Bengal to escape persecution in their homeland. Joya Chatterji mentions how this happened in waves with the initial migrants mainly representing well connected upper classes (106). Those who arrived later were from the lower strata of society- the namasudras– with little or no resources of their own. Naturally these people were seen as economic liabilities and forced to settle in hastily made rehabilitation zones like those of Dandakaranya- their “dumping site” (Bauman 77). However tutored in the ways of paddy cultivation, fishing and carpentry, these migrants were unable to adapt to the arid infertile soil of central India. In 1978, a group of refugees originally from the Khulna district of East Bengal,started marching to Morichjhapi, an uninhabited island in Sundarbans with the hope that the newCommunist government would fulfil its promise, having supported their cause earlier. Kudaisya points out how the “political ascendency of the Left owed a great deal to the refugees” who were encouraged to seek shelter within Bengal (32).However in a dramatic reversal of policy, the Jyoti Basu government now refused to entertain their demands. The stateimposed an economic blockade andsunk the boats of the islanders thereby reducing Morichjhapi to a panopticon-like structure. While most people died of starvation and cholera, others were killed in police firing and arson attacks. Ross Mallick writes how Muslim thugs were also hired from Bangladesh to execute the mass killings (110).

In Ghosh’s novel, the brutal clampdown is witnessed by Nirmal, a retired teacher whose Marxist ideology is shaken by the ruthless state power. Nirmal is mystified to see the precision of the refugee settlers in constructing a new village within a matter of days- “Such industry! Such diligence!”(181). Thus these so-called illegal migrants were neither “human waste” in need of recycling (Bauman 77) nor were they a “bundle of apathy” as claimed in the official discourse on Bengali refugees (Kudaisya 37). Rather they were seeking a new Dalit nation (Ghosh 205),the seeds of which were sown by Sir Daniel Hamilton, a visionary who had started a cooperative society in early twentieth century Gosaba. Incidentally not all Morichjhapi settlers came from the refugee camp. Many like Kusum were looking for an opportunity to reclaim their lost Home. Hailing from the lowest strata of society, the namasudras felt it to be their legitimate right to seek a Placewithin West Bengal, oblivious of the fact that their homing desire threatened the social hierarchies represented by the main Bengal landmass.

Unlike the educated Hindu Sylhetis inSiddhartha Deb’s The Point of Return or the poor refugees inSunil Gangopadhay’s Arjun, the Morichjhapi people were not encroaching upon the resources of the human natives but those of the non-human ones. Thoughaccording to Jyoti Basu, the immigrants had violated the Forest Acts by their unauthorised occupation of a part of Sunderbans Reserve Forest, Morichjhapi was not part of the core tiger reserve area and the forest was earlier cleared by the state governmentto make room for coconut plantations in 1975. Annu Jalais remarks: “the anthropomorphism of tigers in relation to the villagers’ history intrigued me” (1758). The tigers therefore came to be more privileged than the refugees- the “nimnoborner lok” (1758), marking asignificant rupture in the history of man-tiger conflict in Sunderbans. In a vehement critique of Project Tiger and first wave of ecocriticism, Kusumquestions the humanity of the elites: “the worst part was not the hunger or the thirst. It is to sit here, helpless and listen… that our lives, our existence was worth less than dirt… this whole world has become a place of animals, and our fault, our crime was that we were just human beings, trying to live as human beings always have, from the water and the land” (Ghosh 284). Thus in a double act of betrayal, the settlers were not only made “ecological refugees” (Buell, “The Ethics and Politics”121) but also reduced to “tiger food” by the Bengali bhadralok (Jalais 1758).Buell cites how to bridge this gap between ecological and human concerns, ecofeminists in the “past decade” have pushed the “ethics and politics of environment criticism” in a more “sociocentric direction” focusing on “voices of witnesses and victims of environmental injustice” (112).

In The Hungry Tide, the academician becomes the stranger and by extension the outsider, aloof from ground reality. Amitav Ghosh is extremely critical of the Bengali bhadralok whose knowledge of Sunderbans is restricted to “tigers and crocodiles” (12). Therefore Kanaiwho is proud of his linguistic abilities, initially looks down upon Fokir’s rustic ways. His aunt Nilima has no sympathies for the refugees as being the founder of the Babadon Trust, she cannot afford to alienate the government even at the cost of alienating her husband. Despite staying in Lusibari for fifteen years,Nirmal too is unaware of the intricacies of the place and relies on Bernie’s Travels for snippets that are part of Horen’s daily experience. The poet, Khokon one of the Calcutta guests invited by the islanders to mobilise public opinion, is most cynical: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” (Ghosh 206).Thus despite not being trespassers as argued by Shakkho Sen in Tushar Bhattacharya’s 2009 documentary on the massacre, these people had to be dispersed as a far as possible to give the Calcutta bhadralok a false sense of security and as a lesson to all future East Bengali refugees. The legacy of the state sponsored violence culminates in the2007 atrocities in Nandigram that became one of the primary reasons for the downfall of Left government.

Though Piya voices many ecological concerns in the novel, it is the villagers who through themythic-ethical space of Bon Bibi[i] embody the “environment unconscious” (Ghosh, “Wild Fictions”). Theirself-imposed borders segregatinghuman and wildlife territories are more real and potent than a “barbed-wire fence” (Ghosh, The Hungry Tide 241). The respect for the space of non-human Other is so acute that Horen warns Nirmal: “The rule, Saar, is that when we go ashore, you can leave nothing of yourself behind….if you do, then harm will come to all of us” (264). While the Irrawaddy dolphins are “Bon Bibi’s messengers” (235) engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the fishermen, the tiger which is not to be named is a prototype of the devil, Dokkhin Rai- the antagonist. Ifthe trapped tiger is burned by frenzied villagers,the dolphin calf is killed by the coast guard’s boat, asymbol of therepressive state apparatus. From the villagers’ perspective the tiger has to be punished for violating the invisible territorial boundary (as also exemplified by the death of Kusum’s father in the island of Garjontola).Unlike the carnivore which is hailed for its aesthetic appeal, there are no steps taken to protect the endangered species of dolphins. However Piya does not distinguish between the two in terms of conversation. In the chapter, ‘Interrogation’ she points out to Kanai: “Once you decide we can kill off other species, it’ll be people next-exactly the kind of people you’re thinking of, people who are poor and unnoticed” (326). Here she alludes tothe ecological belief that “Environment is not an ‘other’ to us but part of our being” (Buell, “The Place of Place”55).

Like the sea in Riders to the Seaor Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, Sundarbansis not a mere setting in the novel. Here wateris an agent of change that shapes the geology and history of the island, dissolving and recreating man-made boundaries (Anand36). Though Fokir, a remnant of the Morichjhapi massacre is victimised by the forest guards, he is empowered by the legacy of oral traditions and knowledge about the tide country. Piya and Kanai have to depend on him despite being equipped withGPS technology and monetary resources.Kanai’s limitation as a translator isalso enunciated when he is initially unable to translate Fokir’s song. Water acts as a great leveller as neither Nirmal nor Kanai manages to lure the women of their dreams who prefer their rustic counterparts. While Nirmalis destroyed by Partition induced violence[ii], Kanai’s upper class cocoon is shattered as he showers expletives at Fokir in Garjontola. By addressing Kanai as tui instead of apni, Fokir marks a significant rupture in the power equation between the rural and urban, privileged and underprivileged, induced by the hostile terrain of Sundarbans. Kanai’s momentary loss of sanity while hallucinating a tiger suggests the breakdown of all societal rules and class distinctions that the island of Garjontola refuses to abide by.It completes his transformation that was initiated by Nirmal’s diary. Madness- a popular trope in Partition Literature- here becomes a product of fear and threat of violence that traps the bhadrolok instead of the udhbastu (refugee) or bastuhara (dispossessed).

The novel turns into a quest for self not only for Kanai but also for Piya. Despite her linguistic and cultural limitations, Piya is completely at ease with Fokir whose childhood memory too is centredon his mother. Like the animals,they are not imprisoned within linguistic totalities and hence can look beyond themselves (Huttenen 91).However Home has different connotations for each of them, embodying different aspects of their selves.Fokir who resembles a caged bird in the presence of an ambitious wife Moyna, is an emancipated manin his boat- his Place. While Sunderbans remains the site of his cultural and ethnic roots, Piya’s notion of Home is more fluid like the migratory nature of the dolphins.

If state action obliterates Kusum, Fokir the other subaltern, is silenced by nature herself. The cyclone that reduces the tiger, the bird and the humans to the same level; also kills Fokir, the local who sacrifices himself for Piya, the global.The evanescent nature of the island is reiterated as Piya loses most of her research data and Nirmal’s diary is reclaimed by the river. However the latter’s impact as mediated through Kanai is obvious when Piya refuses to place the “burden of conservation on those who can least afford it” (424) and decides to engage with the fisherman for her idealistic project in the tide country- her new “home” (427).Kanai, on his part must rely on his memory as a secondary witness to write the testimony of the subalterns. The novel therefore places the onus on the privileged to speak up for the marginalised.

The Hungry Tide serves as Ghosh’s political mouthpiece, being published in the very year when the Bengal government evicted fishermen from the island of Jambudwip to start a tourism project. Recalling the Morichjhapi massacre, he writes: “It is scarcely conceivable that a government run by the same Left Front is now thinking of handing over a substantial part of the Sunderbans to an industrial house like the Sahara Parivar” (“A Crocodile”).The tragedy of Morichjhapi serves as a significant rupture in Indian immigration history, foregrounding the “narrative of infiltration” (Schendel 195) that was soon to be followed by the Assam movement in 1979. It anticipates the phase of denial when East Bengal refugees, particularly Muslims became “transnational migrants” being rejected by both India and Bangladesh as economic liabilities (Ramachandran 14). Thus be it the 1983 Nellie massacre or the Hindutva narrative of BJP,East Bengalis continue to be constructed asstrangers[iii]as a result of the host nation’s reduced sense ofhospitality verging on hostility.


[i]The narrative of Bon Bibi serves as a counter to caste-based religious instructions and political hegemony that govern the main Indian land mass. Ghosh seems to question the very logic of Partition by showcasing the unique fusion of Hindu and Islamic traditions in the tidal country somewhat reminiscent of pre-Parition Sindh.

[ii]like Tridib in The Shadow Lines

[iii] See Priya Kumar’s essay illustrating the differences between a stranger and an outsider.


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____________. 2004.The Hungry Tide. New Delhi: Penguin Viking, 2008. Print.

____________. “Wild Fictions.” Outlook Magazine. 22 Dec 2008. Web. 20 Nov 2014.

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Ramachandran, Sujata. “Indifference, Impotence and Intolerance: Transnational Bangladeshis in India” Global Migration Perspectives No. 42. Geneva: Global Commission onInternational Migration, 2005. Print.

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Rajorshi Das is currently pursuing MPhil (English) at Delhi University. Being particularly invested in Queer Studies, he is working on the autobiographies of Aubrey Menen.

The Golden Line: Volume 1, Number 2, 2015

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